Some thoughts on [HAB]

Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, AIME manifests a great deal of sensitivity towards diachronicity. It recognises, for example, that a category mistake between two or more modes may have manifested itself as useful and even appropriate at a particular moment in history.

Of course, the general trajectory in which category mistakes take us is pernicious, whether these are found in science, psychology, religion, or whatever:

It is only gradually, and through the shock waves that reverberate in each of the histories proper to each mode, that we find ourselves lamenting, three centuries later, the simultaneous loss of the sciences, subjects, and gods. (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.260)

(In fact, Latour refers to category mistakes in general as ‘malign inversions’, a term taken from the work of Ivan Illich, denoting the threshold above which some good actually ends up creating more bad than it set out to remove in the first place).

And yet still: with malign inversions, we can at least say that there has been history. That history has to be taken into account. And indeed, the value of such historical awareness, perhaps, is that it enables the inquirer to see that the Moderns, even when their trajectory has been pockmarked by category mistakes, have nevertheless not been entirely hamstrung. They have managed to carry on regardless. Or, to put it another way, in spite of the heritage, they have managed not to lapse into total irrationality, by means of applying to themselves ‘an apparent continuity of action’ (Inquiry, p.261; all subsequent references are to the chapter in [HAB] in the Inquiry).

This continuity of action is what is ensured by [HAB].

I was reminded of [HAB] today by someone mentioning it briefly on Twitter. I’d forgotten about it, to be honest. Maybe that’s the point: after all, ‘forgetting’ is central to its logistical operation.

And yet, as Latour himself says, [HAB] is a mode of existence that we neglect or take for granted at our peril:

It is the most important, the most widespread, the most indispensable of the modes of existence, the one that takes up 99% of our lives, the one without which we could not exist, obsessed as we would be with avoiding category mistakes. The one that allows us to define the courses of action that we have learned to follow through the notion of association networks [NET]. (Inquiry, p.262)

Let’s look at its logistical specification. The function of [HAB] is something like the following:

  • It does not ‘forget’ a [PRE].
  • And yet, it ‘omits’ or ‘veils’ it (p. 264), in such a way that prepositional hiatuses get ‘smoothed over’ (p. 266), such that what remains in the functioning of a habitual activity is merely a ‘memory’ (p.266) of them, not necessarily a constant foregrounding.
  • But crucially, all along it is lithe enough to ‘retrieve’ a [PRE] at any point, should that retrieval be required for a ‘restart’ of the mode in question, for whatever reason (p.267).

So if [PRE] is what signals the trajectory, [HAB] is the dynamic that gets us walking through that trajectory according to the initial direction; this forward-movement is key, for it is not that [HAB] indicates blind or brutish capitulation to a pre-determined leader, but more a rapid or efficient following of where we were going anyway.

So we now have to recognize two different senses in the notion of category mistake: being mistaken about the mode on the one hand and on the other limiting ourselves to the search for the right mode without advancing toward what it indicates. (p.265)

But what is the rationality (or veridiction) of [HAB] per se? And how has it been treated philosophically?

We often will assume that a habit is irrational, because it seems to represent an act of supine ‘following’, rather than of active ‘innovation’ (the ‘speed of thought’ promoted by Deleuze, perhaps). But, in fact, habit has its own rationality. And this idiosyncratic rationality is precisely to ensure this ‘following’ does indeed take place (p.266). What we need, then, are more ‘philosophers of habit’ (p.266), serious thinkers who could re-dignify and re-pristine the quality of habit as a function of lived experience. Félix Ravaisson-Mollien might be one notable exception (to which we might add several of the early Church and medieval mystics, perhaps).

The philosophical integrity and practical usefulness of [HAB], then, will be defined by whether it is grasped in its felicity or in its infelicity conditions:

  • [HAB] grasped according to its felicity conditions: these would be habits that enable us to live, but which nevertheless keep us skilful, attentive and alert, and keep the engine of our lives ready for a ‘manual restart’ whenever one should be necessary.
  • [HAB] grasped according to its infelicity conditions: these would be habits that make us more obtuse, that promote merely mechanical gestures or routine obeisance. The infelicity condition of [HAB] is akin to spam: messages that are rootless, without addresser or addressee, destined for the trash (p.269).

So what is the macro-contribution of [HAB] within the context of the Inquiry?

I think one thing is that it provides us with a new take on the story of the Moderns. Without [HAB], the bifurcated epistemology of the Moderns is normatively described in that most familiar of Latourian tropes, namely, the confusion of knowing subject/ known object at [REF:REP]. But with the entrance of [HAB] as a category of modal thought, a more charitable explanation of the story of the Moderns can be offered: the Moderns have simply confused [HAB]. They have drunk the liquor of [HAB], succumbing to its intoxicating power to render implicit the vast majority of courses of action. And yet they have over-indulged, now finding themselves too dozy to activate the manual restart that is also with the gift of [HAB], but which requires sober hands to grasp.

Consequently, when we complain that the Moderns do not know how to account for their own riches, we are not trying to extend the critical question, the Socratic question, to their entire anthropology: we are asking, proposing, suggesting that they no longer raise that question, so that all the other keys can be made explicit, each according to its mode. (Inquiry, p.273)

That, I think, is why we need to wake up a little to the quality of [HAB] and investigate its harmonic potential in association with modes such as [REF], [POL], [LAW] (I think of the recent re-interpretation in English law of the ‘joint enterprise’ means of conviction in a criminal case, for example) – but most of all [REL].

And I say that, as I’ve just come out from a service of Evensong, for the nth time of my life. Did [HAB] sustain me?



7 thoughts on “Some thoughts on [HAB]

  1. in psychology, philosophy, and anthropology habits aren’t seen as ir-rational as much as un-conscious.
    by and large what are all the others except for the accumulations/assemblages of habits (formally disciplined and otherwise)?
    are you familiar with the work of
    “Practices: Turner has published in the overlapping fields of sociology and philosophy, particularly on the notion of practices. In The Social Theory of Practices as well as in other writings Turner argues against collective concepts like culture: what we call culture (and similar concepts), he argues, needs to be understood in terms of the means of its transmission. There is no collective server by which it is simply downloaded and “shared”. What we take as “collective” is really produced through experiences of interaction which are different and produce different results for different individuals but which also produce a rough uniformity through mechanisms of feedback rather than “sharing”. “

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  2. A second question: How do you feel your place relative to the modes of existence when you cognise them ? Is it a 3rd person point of view? (I perceive the big network of modes as being in front of me and getting combined in a way that reminds modelling in science- but then looks like bifurcation) Is it a 1st person point of view? (though I understand that it is not an introspection but rather than feeling the self like a rope that one puts to water and the threads open up). Is it something different?


  3. Thanks ,Vasillis, for your very helpful comments; much appreciated. I’m sorry I don’t have the time I need to answer them all thoroughly (but I am internalising them). Re. the above, you’re right that I’ve elided some of the distinctions that AIME itself makes between ‘constructive’ crossings. Here is a bit of text pasted in from the Vocabulary section of the site:

    [start] We say that a crossing is an amalgam when the heterogeneity of regimes is inextricable and annuls them – as opposed to a composite whose effects are unexpected, certainly, but recognizable and even, possibly, harmonious. In interpolation, we can more easily detect category mistakes than in the amalgam because in an interpolation, a mode is judged only according to the standards of another. [end]


  4. Another question: in what kind of trajectory is one moving when on writes HISTORICALLY? (When one participates in a community of dialogue when an issue is treated historically )When somebody gives an account of how “a category mistake between two or more modes may have manifested itself as useful and even appropriate at a particular moment in history” in what mode is one moving? Is this [REF]? But time does not belong to [REF] only!
    To me it feels as if speaking HISTORICALLY can be (not that it always is so) a jumping around between modes of existence that works communication-wise in real life but no algorithmically accountable account can be given of it in MOE terms (an account that depends on checking of felicity conditions mutually shared and limited in number). It feels as an experience similar to the experience that mathematicians may have that their intuitive understanding of mathematical proof goes beyond the (each time) current step in formalization, and therefore allows them to prove those famous theorems of mathematical logic that seem miraculous.
    It feels as if at the limits of description there is religious poetry


  5. [HAB] brings in my mind discussions about expert performance. On the one hand there is the “flow” Dreyfous talks about (which reminds of veiling) and on the other hand there is recoil towards intensely directed action as presented by Montero in Montero, B. (2013). A dancer reflects. Mind, Reason and Being-in-the-world: The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate, Londres, Routledge.[Links] (which reminds of the “manual mode”)
    May be there is a connection because we are all experts in everyday living (in the most common existence)

    [HAB] is also like seeing somebody picking his nose. From a 3rd person perspective I can see somebody behaving habitually and perhaps check if in cases of problem they exhibit “manual restart”. As for myself I do not think I can perceive myself going about habitually except after the fact, as an afterefect connected with memory (“I’ve been walking along all this time while thinking”, ” I was listening to my child talking while cooking”)

    Maybe [HAB] does another type of stiching. Since every time I witness somebody’s action, “I” am in a sense part of the observed person acting (Perhaps even when seeing objects there is a certain sense in which we “are” the object, witnessing the object is like meeting somebody who is recognised as kind-of-a-visitor with whom a human-like relation can exist), the other’s habitual flow (to which I am a voyeur) is stitched to my feeling of “just having left a state of habitual flow”. It is this hiatus that [HAB] is passing and in this sense it is the rope that ties experience.

    I also find something else very interesting in what you say: [HAB] as a discipline. I am refering to “we need, then, …. more ‘philosophers of habit’ (p.266), serious thinkers who could re-dignify and re-pristine the quality of habit as a function of lived experience…we might add several of the early Church and medieval mystics, perhaps”. There also comes to my mind the Confucian concept of “li” (ceremony , ritual).

    In this sense “honouring [HAB]” is not an alternative path to finding the moral optimum through a Habermasian kind of dialogue? (probably it denies the quest of finding the moral optimum in an accountable way).
    To me it seems that one characteristic of the moderns is that they think that they can project reality in a wax tablet of “representation” and they can then manipulate it through the representation so that they only can see what the others cannot see (and so they are not afraid that they will be defeated while they can defeat the others). In this sense the moderns treat themselves as maximally de-habitized: when the others move along habits, moderns can represent this flow, understand its macinery and finally control it.
    Moreover the front of modernization moves along ruins of the others’ habits (no moral qualms: they just did not survive the scrutiny of reason).
    So honouring [HAB] seems to me as a BIG negotiatory concesion on the part of the moderns.


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